Last fall’s election might’ve injected some new blood into the membership of Alamance County’s board of commissioners. But even with the majority of its seats held by newly-elected commissioners, the board reacted pretty much as it has in the past when the sheriff approached the dais this week with a couple of six-figure spending requests at the ready.
A thundering speech from sheriff Terry Johnson was ultimately enough to compel the board to approve eight additional deputies when it convened its first regularly-scheduled meeting of the New Year on Tuesday. The commissioners also gave their unanimous nod to a package of “merit-based” pay raises, which they agreed to extend to the rest of the county staff – and to backdate to each recipient’s latest performance review – in response to subsequent entreaties from Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood.
In the end, the commissioners signed off on some $758,400 in budget amendments to cover the anticipated cost of these personnel-related requests. Yet, it took more than some slick blandishments from Hagood and Johnson to get the board to approve these expenditures at what amounts to the halfway point in the county’s current financial cycle.
The commissioners cleared these outlays after a rather lengthy presentation from Johnson about his agency’s increasing workload as well as the challenges he currently faces in recruiting and retaining qualified people to serve under his command.
During his presentation, Johnson told the commissioners that the sheriff’s office is busier than ever right now due to the influx of new residents to Alamance County, an apparent rise in violent crime, and the ever-higher demand for many of his agency’s services.
The sheriff said that one indicator of his agency’s increasingly crushing burden is the number of calls for service that it receives from the county’s 9-1-1 center each year. He told the commissioners that, between 2010 and 2020, this figure shot up from 37,635 to 104,776 calls and is currently on track to reach 176,601 calls by 2025.
“We still have the same number of patrol officers,” he went on to admonish the board, “and I’m telling you, they’re running ragged…We’ve got to look at doing something, or we’re going to get so far behind that we’ll never catch up.”
Johnson also informed the commissioners about a recent spike in the demand for some of his agency’s administrative services. He noted that the surge has been particularly noticeable with pistol purchase permits and applications to carry concealed firearms. In the case of pistol purchases, for instance, the number of permits his office has issued jumped from 3,078 to 7,658 over the past year alone.
Another apparent drain on both the agency’s manpower and its funds has been the large number of rallies and demonstrations that have converged on downtown Graham over the past year. Johnson said that his office ultimately had to mobilize its deputies for 20 planned events and another 19 spontaneous gatherings. He went on to estimate that his agency has spent $747,672 on these 39 demonstrations.
“That could’ve given the county employees a nice raise because they certainly need it,” he added. “[These demonstrations] took every piece of manpower we had…One protest, we figured, cost us over $35,000.”
The sheriff went on the bemoan an apparent increase in violent crime that his agency has recently witnessed. He zeroed in on the six homicides that his office handled last year, which he said is the largest number he’s seen in his 18 years as Alamance County’s sheriff. Johnson added that the overall increase in violence has prompted the U.S. Attorney for North Carolina’s Middle District to set up a multijurisdictional “strike force” that he hinted is “going to cost us four people” to meet his agency’s expected contribution.
Johnson proceeded to contrast this spurt in activity with the deputies he currently has on his force. He told the commissioners that his 118 deputies would have to be increased to 147 in order to meet the federal government’s recommended ratio of 2.4 officers for every 1,000 residents.
“I want you to understand, this is officers whose leather is on the streets,” he added, “and that leaves us needing 29 officers by national standards.”
Johnson went on to inform the commissioners about an alarming increase in turnover among his deputies. He recalled that, in 2020 alone, his agency lost 6 people to retirement and 41 others to resignation, which left him with a turnover rate of roughly 15 percent for the year. The sheriff added that it has cost his office about $2,185,688 to replace these 47 deputies. He nevertheless insisted that this seven-figure outlay is unlikely to stop the defection of deputies who leave his office for better salaries at other area agencies.
Johnson told the commissioners that, on average, the law enforcement agencies his office competes with offer starting salaries that are 12.58 percent more generous than his own. He added that the temptation is especially great at the office of Guilford County’s sheriff, where he said the compensation is about 20 percent higher than in Alamance County.
The sheriff urged the commissioners to consider a pay raise for his employees to prevent them from defecting for higher salaries at other agencies. He said that his exit interviews with departing employees have revealed widespread dissatisfaction with pay, the rising burden that employees bear for the county’s medical coverage, and the elimination of merit-based raises.
“Employees are having to work two or three jobs to earn a living for their families. Money doesn’t buy happiness but it certainly helps when you’re trying to feed a family.”
– ALAMANCE COUNTY SHERIFF TERRY JOHNSON
“Employees are having to work two or three jobs to earn a living for their families,” he added. “Money doesn’t buy happiness but it certainly helps when you’re trying to feed a family.”
The sheriff said that pay raises for deputies, school resource officers, and jailers would go a long way toward bringing his turnover rate under control. He went on to project that an 8 percent raise for his entire force would cost the county about $1,624,092. Meanwhile, raises of 10 or 12 percent would cost $2,030,115 or $2,436,137 respectively.
Johnson went on to urge the commissioners to consider some sort of pay increase – regardless of how much or how little it is.
“I’m asking the commissioners to do something somewhere along the line,” he added. Our people will be happy for anything they can get.”
The sheriff’s concerns about salaries seemed to register almost immediately with commissioners like Steve Carter, who currently serves as the vice chairman of Alamance County’s governing board.
“We can’t keep being a training ground for other counties and municipalities that surround us.”
– COUNTY COMMISSIONER STEVE CARTER
“We can’t keep being a training ground for other counties and municipalities that surround us,” he went on to tell his fellow commissioners.
Carter also endorsed the four strike force positions that Johnson had mentioned in his presentation as well as another four new patrol deputies that he didn’t explicitly request from the commissioners.
Johnson estimated that it would cost $62,000 a year to hire each of these new employees, or $206,000 for all eight during the five months left in the current fiscal year.
The cost of these deputies proved acceptable enough to commissioner Pam Thompson, who proceeded to read out a typed motion that she had she had preemptively prepared regarding the prospective additions to Johnson’s force. Her motion went on to pass unanimously by a margin of 4-to-0 – the board’s fifth seat being currently vacant due to the recent departure of commissioner-turned state senator Amy Scott Galey.
Raises for all county employees proposed and adopted
The commissioners were a little less certain about how to proceed with the sheriff’s other request for an increase in the wages of his subordinates. Their conundrum was effectively resolved by county manager Bryan Hagood, who assured the board that he had intended to broach a merit-based pay raise for the entire county staff at its next regularly scheduled meeting on February 1.
Hagood reminded the commissioners that the merit-based raise which county employees usually get were omitted from the county’s current annual budget due to concerns about the impact that the coronavirus pandemic would have on the county’s sales tax receipts. These fears, which were still running high when the commissioners approved the budget in June, have since been ameliorated by several months of unexpectedly robust returns on this levy.
Hagood went on to encourage the commissioners to restore the staff’s merit-based raise to the budget in light of the county’s windfall from sales taxes.
“If you’re interested in bringing back merit pay across the board retroactively…the cost would be $552,440,” he added, “and in my opinion, we have the money. Sales taxes have been strong.”
The county manager said that the county’s sales tax returns would also suffice to cover the sheriff’s eight new positions. He went on to request that the commissioners allow him to make several other personnel-elated changes without any budgetary impact, such as such as flexible work weeks for EMS and the county’s 9-1-1 center. The commissioners ultimately signed off on these added requests.
In addition to restoring the staff’s merit-based raise, Hagood advised the commissioners to backdate each employee’s increase to the anniversary of his or her start date, which would generally coincide with the staff member’s most recent performance review. He added that the retroactive portion of each employee’s raise could be lumped into the paycheck that he or she will receive at the end of February.
Commissioner Bill Lashley initially expressed some misgivings about the retroactive nature of the merit-based raises, which he stressed is not something he’s seen in the private sector.
“When my boss decides to give me a raise, it’s not retroactive,” he explained. “That’s not something that happens. Never, never, never. That’s my only holdback.”
In the end, Lashley voted in favor of the pay raises, which passed 4-to-0.
In the meantime, commissioner Steve Carter reminded his colleagues about a salary study that recommended various increases to ensure the county’s pay is competitive with what other local governments offer. Hagood acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic “threw a monkey wrench” in the county administration’s intention to roll out a comprehensive pay plan that would put the salary study’s recommendations into effect.